Volume 1 Issue 2
February 2001
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Willard (Bill) Gentry

Colonial Virginia culture, political and religious conditions are reviewed in relation to their impact upon the immigrant Nicholas Gentry. These include the lack of town and county infrastructure, processioning, headrights, indentured service, marriage records, and the important part played by the Church of England local parish.

To appreciate the society to which Nicholas Gentry came in the second half of the 17th century, it is very helpful to understand the cultural, political, and religious conditions present in Colonial Virginia of the time. A variety of factors contributed to this society. Among these are some on which the historian Samual Morrison comments, in his book "The Oxford History of the American People"<1a>:

"Jamestown, where every arriving and departing ship had to call, had a goodly brick church...and a brick State House where the assembly met, but not more than thirty other houses by mid-century. When the courts and assembly were not sitting the town was almost deserted. A traveler of 1650, sailing up the James, the York or another tidal tributary of Chesapeake Bay, found every few miles a clearing with a wharf, a modest mansion, a clutch of wooden cottages for servants, an orchard, kitchen garden and corn patch, and fields green with the tobacco plant. Beyond and between these plantations there was only the primeval forest in which cattle browsed and pigs rooted. Transport was largely by boat, along the natural waterways...up which the salt tides flowed to the line of falls. This gave every plantation a place on the tobacco pipeline to England. The Reverend John Clayton observed in a letter of 1688 that 'this Conveniency' was an 'impediment to the Advance of the country,' because it forces ships to visit every plantation and spared the planters the necessity of sending their produce to a market town. 'The Country is thinly inhabited; the Living solitary and unsociable; Trading confused and dispersed; besides other Inconveniences.'

"Tobacco culture was so ruinous to fertility that every planter needed reserve land. Probably no more than 10 acres of a 1000-acre plantation were under cultivation at the same time...All prices and salaries, even of the ministers, were expressed in pounds of tobacco; and when warehouses were built toward the close of the century, warehouse receipts passed like cheques drawn to bearer today. Even the wealthiest planters handled very little hard money; all transactions were made on credit, bills paid annually when the return of the crop was made from England.

"The dominant feature of the country at this period [1675] was the 100- to 300-acre farm, and the typical Virginian was an English yeoman, often an ex-servant, who worked himself, with his family and his few servants."

John Fiskes, in his Historical Writings<2a> had similar comments which can be summarized:

Of great importance in the development of early Virginia was its geography with almost all the large plantations bordering rivers where at individual landings, tobacco could be loaded onto ships, and in exchange, manufactured goods from England could be unloaded. This took away any need for centers of transportation and reshipment, and also it took away any incentive for small crafts industries, the local manufacture of furnishings and the like. With the exception of Jamestown, and later Williamsburg, there was not a town in all of Virginia up through the early years of the eighteenth century. Most of the county seats consisted of a courthouse, flanked by a jail, a tavern and inn, and a general store. Efforts of the legislature to promote the building of towns were ignored. Almost all travel was by water--in sloops or canoes. By land, the roads were nothing more than bridal paths.

The early documentation of births, marriages, deaths, land transfers, and the like in the pre-Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary Southern States was in sharp contrast to the well-documented and maintained records that one can usually find in New England. Land records and wills in general, through much of Colonial Virginia's early history, have been few and far between in either being recorded in the first place, or in surviving to modern times. Often one finds that a deed of sale was not recorded until a number of years after the actual sale, when the time came to sell the land to someone else. There has also been a serious loss of records due to warfare. During the Revolutionary War courthouses were burned by the British, in the War of 1812 Washington D.C. was burned by the British, and during the Civil War courthouses were again burned by Northern forces. Hanover County was particularly hard hit in this respect, being almost devoid of early civil records. Another example of this is the complete absence of surviving census records for the 1790 Federal Census for all of Georgia and Virginia, and for a number of counties in North Carolina. These records were sent to Washington and subsequently burned. Virtually all of the 1800 Georgia and Virginia census and much of the 1810 census have also been lost.

Another reason for the absence or loss of records lies in the administrative structure of the southern colonies. Data concerning the birth and marriage of individuals was the responsibility of the Church of England, and these records were customarily in the personal possession of the rector, some of whom were not permanently assigned to a location. The Rev. William Douglas was an exception among Anglican rectors and is well known among family historians because the parish register which he kept has survived to the present. His records span the time when he was at St. James Northam Parish, Goochland Co., which Douglas served for 27 years until 1777 when he moved to Louisa Co taking his personal copy of his records with him. In the mid-1700's, because of the lack of Anglican clergymen, who were originally the only people authorized to perform marriage ceremonies, the laws of Virginia and North Carolina were extended to allow Justices of the Peace to perform this ceremony (with the permission of the Anglican minister in his parish). Before such a marriage could occur, church banns had to be published for three weeks, or the prospective couple had to obtain a marriage license. The latter required posting of a substantial bond which was recorded at the county courthouse. Because many people could not find someone to post a bond of this magnitude, a large proportion of marriages, until well into the 19th century, were preceded by the publishing of banns and were not recorded.

Quoting John Fiskes again<2b>:

Essentially all governmental functions at the local level were carried out through the church parish and presided over by clergymen. The Anglican Church in Virginia suffered for want of ministers...By 1672 four out of five Virginia parishes were vacant, and two out of three which were not vacant had lay readers instead of ordained ministers. Having no colleges like Harvard where they could be educated, and few schools, young Virginians found it too difficult to qualify for the ministry, and the colony depended on obtaining a supply from England. Not only was the English church at a low point at the time, but generally the men appointed to serve colonial churches were ones who were not fit to serve a home church but thought good enough for the colonies. Moreover, young English ordinands naturally preferred a parish in Old England to roughing it in Virginia.

As Fiskes indicates, lacking any town structure or civic bodies such as the town meetings found in New England, the parish was responsible for almost all local activities. Besides its religious functions, the parish handled all social welfare needs such as providing for the care of widows, orphans, and anyone incapable of handling their own affairs. The parish also arranged for the building and care of roads, bridges, and the like. Even local taxation was a function of the parish. Each year, the total parish expenses for the previous 12 months were divided equally among all the taxable parish members. If the division did not come out even, whatever was remaining in the way of expense, was carried over to next year's division of expense so no one had to pay an unequal share. Taxation by the county and the recording of tax lists and liability did not take place until well into the 18th century. The local county had a sheriff who was responsible for law enforcement, but other county functions were mostly limited to court actions, estate and probate settlements, and the recording of deeds. In the case of the latter, the original grants for land were processed and recorded by the colonial government at Jamestown, but all changes in ownership after that were recorded at the county level.

One rather unique function assigned to parishes by the colonial General Assembly was the duty of processioning land. An act of 1705 as modified in 1748 provided<3>:

"Once in every four years, the bounds of every person's land shall be processioned, or gone round, and the land marks renewed, [as follows] ... between the first day of June and the first day of September, in every fourth year ... by order of the Court ... the vestry of each parish within their County respectively, [shall] divide their parishes into so many precincts, as to them shall seem most convenient for processioning every particular person's land in their respective parishes, and to appoint the particular times ... when such processioning shall be made in every precinct; and also [shall] appoint two or more intelligent honest freeholders of every precinct, to see such processioning performed, and to take and return to the Vestry an account of every persons land they shall procession, and of the persons present at the same, and what lands in their precincts they fail to procession, and the particular reasons of such failure".

St. Peter's Parish, where Nicholas and Samuel Gentry first resided, and later St. Paul's Parish, the successor parish for the area (both of which will be described in some detail below), were unusual in that minutes of vestry meetings survive, and that records of land processioning were maintained. St. Paul's Parish was unusually faithful in performing this processioning. This is very fortunate for Gentry historians since it is almost exclusively through this record that we can postulate the members and movements of the first Nicholas Gentry's family other than the three children whose baptism was recorded in St. Peter's Parish.

The preface to the transcription by C. G. Chamberlayne of St. Paul's Parish Vestry Book<4> comments:

St. Paul's Vestry Book...relate[s] to a contiguous area in which the early local records have been either lost or destroyed. This volume is distinctive because it was regularly used to enter processioning orders and returns, as well as the recording of minutes of vestry meetings. Thus it is a comprehensive record of land owners in the parish. Since the records of Hanover County [the location of St. Paul's Parish], were destroyed during the evacuation fire in Richmond in 1865, the entries in the vestry book are the only existing record of land ownership."

Another distinctive practice used in Virginia was the issuance of headrights. These encouraged immigration by rewarding immigrants with written warrants that could be used in exchange for land. Quoting Samuel Morrison<1b>:

"A headright was obtained by application to the Virginia colonial secretary for a warrant entitling the holder to 50 acres of [vacant] Virgina land for himself and for each person brought over to Virginia at his own expense. In addition, he received another 50 acres for every person he brought in later. His only requirement to take advantage of it was to find a site in ungranted land, lay it out with an official surveyor, record it at the county court, and then to "seat"--that is to build upon or cultivate the ground. After that he received a deed, and the land was his to have and to hold, subject to a quitrent to the crown of two shillings per 100 acres. He did not have to convert all headrights into land at once; they could be saved for future use, inherited by his heirs, or even sold."

This practice lasted into the 18th century, and in the early years in Virginia, was the only way by which an ordinary person could obtain land. The practice is of particular significance in the lives of the immigrant brothers, Nicholas Gentry and Samuel Gentry. In the case of both brothers, their passages from England to the Americas, though presumably many years apart in time, resulted in the generation of headrights that were used to apply for land grants.

In the case of Nicholas, although he was known to be in Virginia from at least 1680 onwards, his headright was apparently accumulated along with others for many years and not used until April 1700<5a>:

"George Alves, [granted] 1014 acs. New Kent Co, in St. Peters Par; on both sides of Totopotomoys Cr. Adj Roger Thompson, Charles Turner & Thomas Wilkinson ... Trans of 21 pers [incldg Nicholas Gentry]."

Samuel's headright was apparently used in 1684, by Samuel, to apply for land for himself, although his name was not specifically listed among the persons for whom transportation was paid<5b>:

"Samuell Gentrey, [granted] 300 acs., New Kent Co.; S. side of York [Pamunkey] River; Betw. brs. of same and brs. of Tottapottamoys Cr. Adj. Col. John Page, Esqr.; Edward Houchin & Nicholas Gentrey. Trans. of 6 pers; John Morris, Francis Middleton, Hen. Tully, Elizabeth Ody, Mar. Gardner, 2."

Indentured Service
Another characteristic practice found in the early years in the Middle Atlantic Colonies, especially in Maryland and Virginia, was the practice of using indentured servants. Before the arrival of slaves in Virginia, the very-intensive labor required to raise crops such as tobacco, resulted in the importation of large numbers of persons, especially for use as farm laborers. This was accomplished by paying the passage for a worker to cross the ocean to Virginia, and then for that worker to be bound in an indenture contract for 5 to 7 years. Even after the importation of slaves became more common, indentured service continued, especially to dispose of criminals exported from Great Britain. In 1681, more than twice as many indentured whites as black slaves were still employed as plantation workers.

Samuel Morison points out<1c>:

"Servant in the colonial era meant about the same as employee in ours; and within the class there was as wide a variation as today between a migrant farm laborer in California and a master electrician. In the English colonies, a servant was usually a person whose passage was paid, or assisted, in return for working for a certain number of years--usually four or five for an adult. When released from this apprenticeship, the servant became a freeman like any other. Servants in Virginia might be of any class, from poor gentleman, to convicted felon. The average servant was a respectable young person who wished to better himself in the New World but could not afford the cost of outfit and passage. During the four or five years he worked for his master, he became acclimated, learned how to grow tobacco and corn, and in many instances learned a trade. During this term of service the servant received only food and clothing; but at the end, the former servant could set up as a yeoman farmer, vote, and even be elected to the assembly."

Morison goes on to say that the range of membership in the servant class varied from respectable young men and women; to Scottish and Irish prisoners taken in the civil wars; to boys and girls that were kidnapped and sold to ships' masters who then resold them on arrival in the New World; to convicted felons. These latter in turn might vary from people imprisoned for nothing worse than stealing a loaf of bread, to hardened habitual criminals.

At the November 1680 session of the York County Court<6>

"It is the opinion of the Court and accordingly ordered that what wages is due to Nicholas Gentry for being a soldier at Mattapony Garrison till June last be paid to Nicholas Sabrell by the forty which Gentry serves for, and the Sabrell pay Gentry what wages is due him by and according to conditions made between them."

Nicholas' obligation to the "forty" is outlined in "Hening's Statutes"<7>:

"...Bee it enacted...that every forty tythables within this country be assessed and fitt and sett forth one able and suffitient man and horse, with furniture well and compleatly armed...and alsoe that each respective forty tythables doe provide and sent up to the severall store houses...provision for such man and horse...and that each respective County send theor proportion of men as is heareafter sett downe and expressed, vizt...New Kent County, Yorke County, and one third part of Glocester County souldiers to be sent to the garrison at the head of Mattapony [River];..."

Nicholas must have been one of the "able and suffitient men", in all likelihood because he was expendable in the community and without family. It was a common occurrence that indentured servants served in military expeditions, either during the indenture period or soon after having obtained their "freedom dues" but before being able to establish a household--either for want of a wife or sufficient capital. Nicholas Gentry may have had some labor arrangement with Nicholas Sabrell as a freedman, or Nicholas Sabrell may have held his indenture. In either case, it was probable that Nicholas' service at Mattaponi Garrison was part of an agreement between him and Nicholas Sabrell to meet a conscription quota for the garrison.

'The Gentry Family in America", published in 1909 by Richard Gentry, comments that there was a tradition among some members of the Gentry descendants that Nicholas and his brother Samuel came to the New World as British "Redcoats", sent by the Crown to quell "Bacon's Rebellion" in 1676. The rebellion had been quashed before the soldiers arrived, and they were forthwith discharged and left to fare for themselves in the colony. Nicholas' service as a militia man in quarding against Indian attacks may have been expanded by later generations into the more glamorous story of being a "Redcoat". Certainly the fact that Nicholas' passage was paid for by some unknown person and his probable service as an indentured worker, both suggest that this family story was probably an embroidery of actual facts.

St. Peter's Parish
As a part of the political, religious and cultural climate in which Nicholas Gentry lived, the local Anglican parish structure formed a big part. All evidence points to Nicholas first settling along Totopotomoy Creek in what was at the time New Kent County, and never moving from that location. As indicated above, historians are very fortunate to have the vestry records of St. Peter's Parish and St. Paul's Parish still extant. They have been transcribed and published by C. G. Chamberlyne and placed in an easily accessible form<4><8>.

St. Peter's Parish, where Totopotomoy Creek was located at the time of Nicholas' and Samuel's settling there, was formed in 1678 by division from Blisland parish. It encompassed the valley of the Pamunkey River and its tributaries. It was bounded on the north-east by the ridge-line between the Pamunkey and the Mattaponi rivers, and on the south-west by the ridge-line between the Pamunkey and Chickahominy rivers as shown in Figure 1. In 1691, county boundaries were changed so that the northerly and southerly boundaries coincided with rivers rather than the ridge-lines between river basins. This meant that settlers on opposite sides of a river were now living in different counties and different parishs. At that time the land north of the Pamunkey River, the so-called "Pamunkey Neck", was taken from St. Peter's Parish and added to neighboring St. John's Parish. There was no boundary established on the north-west side, the parish theoretically extending in that direction indefinitely, although practically speaking it extended only as far as to the farthest point of settlement. This was not far beyond the fork of the South Anna and North Anna Rivers.

The parish contained more than one church building during the first years of its existence. The "Lower Church" was originally located several miles downstream from Matadequin Creek along the Pamunkey River and was used until 1703 when it was replaced by a new church that still stands today. This church was the site of the marriage of George Washington in 1759, and is the oldest parish church in the Diocese of Virginia<9>.

Map of St. Peter's Parish
Figure 1. St. Peter's Parish boundaries, 1700

St. Paul's Parish
In 1704, the western half of St. Peter's Parish was split off to form St. Paul's Parish. The new parish was bounded on the south-east roughly from the junction of Matadequin Creek with Pamunkey River (a line which later became the eastern boundary of Hanover County), on the north by the Pamunkey River as far as the fork of the South Anna and North Anna rivers, and continuing north-west from there to the limit of settlement (see Figure 2). The new St. Paul's Parish included the area around Totopotomoy Creek where Nicholas Gentry lived, and eventually the parish became a part of Hanover County when that county was divided from New Kent County in 1720<4>.

St. Paul's Parish was similarly divided in 1726 when St. Martin's Parish was separated from it. The new parish included all that part of St. Paul's Parish lying in the fork of the Pamunkey (made by the junction of the North Anna and the South Anna Rivers) together with all that part of the original parish lying north-west of Stonehorse Creek. The reduced area of St. Paul's Parish now extended from Matadequin Creek on the east as far as the fork of the Pamunkey to the west and as far as Stonehorse Creek for the territory south of the South Anna. Moreover, in line with the change in setting boundary lines of counties and parishes as river courses rather then ridgelines, first adopted in 1691 by the Virginia General Assembly, in 1725 land was added to St. Paul's Parish to the south-west. From the ridgeline between the Pamunkey/South Anna Rivers and the Chickahominy River, which was the original parish boundary, the new boundary was now extended all the way to the Chickahominy River.

Map of St. Paul's Parish
Figure 2. Map of St. Paul's Parish, 1730

The important part played by St. Peter's Parish and St. Paul's Parish in revealing information about Nicholas Gentry is discussed further in the next issue of this Journal. Part II of this series will provide the references that relate to the family of Nicholas, and will discuss the arguments used to identify his children.


  1. Samuel Eliot Morison, "The Oxford History of the American People", Oxford University Press, New York, 1965.
    (a) p.61-74; (b) p.86; (c) p.82
  2. John Fiskes, Historical Writings, "Old Virginia and Her Neighbors", Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston and New York, 1900, vol II
    (a) p.202ff; (b) p.91
  3. "Cumberland Parish, Lunenburg County, Va, Vestry Book 1746-1816", edited by Landon C. Bell, Richmond, VA, 1930.
  4. "The Vestry Book of St. Paul's Parish, Hanover County, Va, 1706-1786", transcribed & edited by C. G. Chamberlayne, published by The Library Board [of Virginia], Richmond, 1940, reprinted 1973
  5. "Cavaliers and Pioneers, Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents and Grants", abstracted by Nell Marion Nugent, published by Virginia State Library, Richmond.
    (a) "Vol III (1695-1732)", p.37 [Patent Bk 9, p.268], published 1979.
    (b) "Vol II (1666-1695)", p.282 [Patent Bk 7, p.405], published 1977.
  6. "York County Deeds, Orders, and Wills, 1677-1685", vol 6, p.268; 1680 Nov Court.
  7. "Hening's Statutes", vol 2, p.433-440, "An Act for the Defense of The Country Against the incursion of the Indian Enemy".
  8. "The Vestry Book and Register of St. Peter's Parish, New Kent and James City Counties, 1684-1786", transcribed and edited by C. G. Chamberlayne, published by The Library Board, Richmond, VA, 1937.
    [Previous edition: "The Parish Register of Saint Peter's, New Kent County, VA. from 1680 to 1787", transcribed by National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Virginia, Richmond, 1904]
  9. "Gentry Family Gazette & Genealogy", published by Richard H. Gentry, McLean, VA, vol 8, p.3 (Sep 1991).

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